Almost exactly 19 years ago I brought home my tiny premature baby after she spent a few weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit. She was barely 4 pounds. Nine years later, her baby sister would follow in the same footsteps, coming home after a 30-day NICU stay, weighing barely 4 pounds. A few years after HER birth, our twin babies came home – miraculously no NICU stay – each weighing…can you guess? Yep. About 4 pounds each. (I joked with my husband John this was officially a family tradition. Ha. Ha.)
In the weeks following the births of our children, friends and family often teased me and my husband about our “excessive” or “ridiculous” guidelines and our need for total isolation for the first few weeks. No visitors. No children. Even our babies’ older siblings were kept in opposite sides of the house. We required hand washing, blankets over clothes, hand sanitizer, even face masks at one point when my nieces visited our twins during flu season. Excessive? Perhaps for some…but I strongly think not.
I’m convinced that few things can amount to the kind of fear and pain a NICU parent experiences as they watch their tiny babies being stuck with needles or have feeding tubes inserted into their impossibly tiny noses. The constant unease that comes with the unknown (a familiar feeling now maybe?). Will something else go wrong today? Will she gain those precious few ounces this week so I can finally hold her? The steady beeping and blaring alarms that the monitoring equipment fills the room is another reminder that this is not normal. But it now is your new normal. Long, frightening hospitals stays can instill some deep-rooted trauma that many NICU parents struggle to move past, even as their children head off to college as mine did this past summer. Even to this day, the sounds made by noisy hospital monitoring machines elicit random convulsive sobs from me. I never want to experience that again – so I always take necessary precautions. Yes, even today.
The tragic pandemic affecting the entire planet is hands down one of the most terrifying experiences many of us have gone through. Many are genuinely fearing sickness and/or death. The protective measures people are taking to protect themselves from an illness that may or may not afflict them would be almost laughable if the terror of the potential danger to some weren’t so real. Their fears, however “irrational” some may feel they may be, are valid, and I hope there is a universal understanding that those fears are to be respected. No playdates. No birthday parties. No movie nights. No casual visits to family. Because the threat is real.
As I read the new reports and watched the coverage on TV, a supposed new term was being talked about all over – social distancing. When one anchor stated, “ Up next, we will tell you what social distancing means and how you can do your part to stop the spread,” I said out loud to my husband, “Social distancing? New Term? We have been reigning King and Queen of social distancing for decades now.” And we laughed and laughed until further discussion no longer made it funny.
The entire point of this post is this: when we all get through this – because WE WILL get through this – I hope that those who mocked or failed to respect the wishes of parents who were merely trying to keep their babies safe will emerge with newfound respect and a greater understanding of the “why” behind those specific wishes. NICU babies are more vulnerable and a visit from a friend or family who is even slightly ill can land them back into the hospital. In some cases, the situation can be life threatening (again, sound familiar?).
A few days ago, I looked around our home (as well as both our vehicles) and I collected bottles of travel hand sanitizer, face masks, disinfecting wipes, antibacterial hand wipes and other little hidden treasures. These are everyday standard must haves for us and we stash them in glove boxes, kitchen pantry, car glove boxes, kids backpacks etc. We have embraced standard sanitation practices and taken protective measures for years. The NICU will do that to you. After I gathered all these goodies, which are now worth their weight in gold, I got a box together and prepared to send some extras to a few people with a big fat note saying, “I TOLD you so.” Just kidding. Now is not the time for that. I’ll go with, “I forgive you – welcome to my world” instead.
Authors note: I know I’ve added some touches of humor to this article. It is not meant to come off as disrespectful or to take away from the seriousness of the current state of the world. I also acknowledge that it is not only NICU parent’s who take certain precautions for the sake of their children’s health. For all those who can relate to NICU parents like me, I hear you and now I hope the rest of the world will too. Stay safe everyone and take care of eachother – from a distance of course!